Lluc spoke up as we left the clearing and druids behind us. “Kaius and I talked with some of the druids who remained behind after the rest of you went gallivanting off into the woods last night. They said they’ve had a few goblin incursions over the last few weeks.”
“Really?” asked Greg. “There were no signs of any combat that I saw.”
I smiled a knowing smile. “There wouldn’t be. Not when the trees themselves were repelling the attacks. The goblins probably didn’t even know what hit them. My brethren probably regrew whatever damage they managed to inflict.”
Greg sat back in his saddle, obviously working out what to make of that statement. “Well, that explains their disinterest in the goblins. I wouldn’t be afraid of them either if I knew the forest would take care of them.”
“That’s not it entirely. The druids still call on the forest. It won’t do all the work on its own without a little urging.”
Kaius had a determined look on his face. “We need to clear them out. These are evil creatures. They can’t be allowed to raid and destroy anymore. People are suffering because of them.”
“I agree,” Lluc said.
“Plus,” Barry added, “we need to recover all the gold they’ve stolen. They probably have a lot. Most of the original owners are probably gone, so we could safely hold onto it, I bet.”
Kaius gave him a flat look, but his comments earned him a grin from Greg and Lluc. I was more worried about what the goblins were doing to the forest. They made mean tools and had little regard for nature. Goblins didn’t cull old, dry branches for firewood. They brought down the entire tree.
We continued on until dusk started to settle onto the forest. As we kept our eyes peeled for a likely campsite, a thick fog came in around us. The horses began to nicker and stamp their feet as we came to a halt.
A long, lone howl split the silence of the woods.
Kaius and Lluc readied their weapons and I followed suit. Barry hopped up on the back of the cart and squinted to get a better view through the veil of fog around us. Greg rubbed his mount’s neck in an effort to keep her calm.
Another howl, closer this time. It was answered by companions coming from directly ahead of our path.
“Nine Hells,” Kaius swore. “Wolves must be hungry to be attacking travellers on the road.”
Lluc snorted. “We’re in the backlands. Not enough men around to put proper fear into them.”
As if in answer, a dozen wolves crept out of the fog, bodies low to the ground, and teeth bared. The alpha barked and snarled, then the pack leaped into action. Several split off to circle our flanks as the bulk of them went for the horses.
Lluc and Kaius didn’t mean to let them. The wolves, agile as they were, dodged blows from the morning star and longsword, jumping into and out of their reach. Barry let loose bullets from his sling, taking one of the circling wolves in the flank and another in the head, dropping him to the ground with a yelp. Greg grabbed for the reigns of Shrug-Stem and managed to keep the horses from bolting.
I pulled out a branch of holly and reached out to the wolves. Calm, I thought as the color faded from the twig. I projected the image of a fresh kill from a hunt. A wolf on his back, sunning himself, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. A man and his companion beside a campfire after a long day. The holly was glowing in my hand.
The alpha’s ears perked up at me and his tail started to wag. Come to me, I thought. The other wolves began to retreat to the forest after it became obvious that Kaius and Lluc would not back down. They had been hoping for easy prey.
“What’s that one doing,” Barry asked, arm spinning up another bullet in his sling.
“Wait,” I hissed. “He’s a friend.” I went to one knee and pulled out some salted venison from a trail ration in my pack. This is yours, if you will take it, I thought. Come with me.
The wolf’s ears laid back on his head as he inched forward. It regarded Lluc’s bloodied blade with suspicion, and gave him a wide berth as he slinked around him. He galloped the last few yards before reaching me, took the meat gently with his mouth, then laid down on the ground, gnawing on the salted meat contentedly.
“Hi Max,” I said, smiling to myself as much as him. “I’d like you to meet my friends.”
The horses weren’t fond of Max, but after a night with him in camp, and a full day of the wolf trotting along beside us, they began to calm down. Mostly. Their eyes weren’t rolling at him nearly as much by then.
We had left the beaten path early that morning. Out this far, the path—as it was—was mostly a cart-sized clearing between trees. Barry had noticed the columns of smoke, rising above the forest, as we started walking again after our midday meal. We had been heading toward them ever since, catching glimpses of the plumes through openings in the forest canopy.
The last light of the day was waning as Barry came back from one last scouting trip ahead for the day. “I can see their campfires up ahead,” he said. “Lots of huts around, and what looks like a mine cut into the hill.”
“How many goblins?” Greg asked.
Barry pulled his lips into a thin line. “Dozens.”
“Lets camp here for the night,” Lluc said. “We can get a better look at their camp in the morning and weigh our options.” He sat his pack down against a tree and started to lay out his bedding. The rest of us followed suit.
“No campfire tonight,” I said. “It’s not worth the risk.” The others nodded their assent.
Lluc took the first watch that night.